Time for a Fear Free Pet Makeover for Your Clinic

By Arden Moore

It’s the mission of Kathryn Primm, DVM, to make sure the stress level diminishes for all clients and pets who enter through the front door at Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee.

Dr. Primm, who became the first veterinarian to be certified in the Fear Free Pets program, looked around her animal hospital and realized it was time for a makeover. When she originally bought this practice years ago, she converted a residence into an animal hospital with the help of a Small Business Administration loan.

This year, she applied what she has learned in reducing fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) into noticeable changes within the clinic’s walls to the betterment of pets, clients, and her staff.

“I felt like the facility was a hurdle to my complete implementation of Fear Free, plus we need to expand anyway, so it was a perfect time to do both,” says Dr. Primm. “As it was, it was certainly not optimized for Fear Free. We had a lot of ‘work arounds.’ Now we have better flow and an environment detailed to the needs of pets with FAS.”

Dr. Primm factored in sights, sounds, and smells within the clinic walls. Recognizing the superior sense of hearing dogs and cats possess, she started by replacing the front door sporting a big glass storm door that would ding each time it was opened with a quiet-opening front door with non-reflective glass – and no ding. The goal was to make the entrance more welcoming for cats, dogs, and other companion animals.

“We had noticed that many pets pulled back on their leashes when they approached the front door, and it was big and loud and showed a reflection of a frightened dog at eye level,” she says. “Loud noises can be stressors for everyone.”

She made the reception area almost as quiet as a library by installing Bluetooth headsets for staff so there are no irritating sounds of ringing phones. Inside the exam rooms, she opted for quiet-closing drawers and cabinets, soundproofed walls, and when feasible, pocket doors.

“I saw pets react to sounds in the next room every single visit,” she says. “They still do because their hearing is so acute, but we have minimized it significantly. We used to hear road noise at our front desk and now it is gone. People tell me every day that their pet drags them into our front door now or that their pet has never been so calm at a veterinary clinic.”

She also added non-slick floors to ensure steady footing for pets, especially those who are a bit scared, unsure, or have mobility issues due to age or disease. She purposely sunk the weight scale and topped it with a comfy rug.

“Many dogs do not like to step up on a scale,” she says. “It seemed to make them even more nervous. Yes, you can train dogs to not be afraid of the scale by incorporating treats and other Fear Free principles, but having the sunken scale just makes it quicker and easier to get the critical info about canine patients. If you start the visit with fear about the scale, the whole visit is behind – even before I walk into the exam room.”

An inexpensive but vital renovation called for installing added outlets in the exam rooms and lobby to accommodate dog- and cat- pheromone diffusers to release calming chemical messages that go unnoticed by humans but are recognized by pets. More outlets also allow for calming music and towel warmers.

Dr. Primm says the changes to make her animal hospital even more Fear Free were worth the investment.

“Hey, one has to spend money to make money,” she says. “Since our changes, clients are writing good reviews about us and about Fear Free. They are telling us how much they appreciate all that we do. I have reason to believe that my return on this investment will be amazing.”

Are you weighing the pros and cons of implementing more Fear Free items and designs in your practice? Dr. Primm offers this parting advice:

“You will be amazed at how onboard your clients will be with the changes. People truly hate to see their pets struggle or become stressed. Train all members of your team about the Fear Free philosophy and hang posters in your exam rooms explaining why you are different and let them start client education before you enter the exam room.”

To learn more, please visit Dr. Primm’s website at http://www.drprimm.com and her animal hospital at www.applebrookanimal.com.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.